Before applying to graduate school, have a candid discussion with your advisor, and possibly even with biologists in or outside of the department. Contact schools of interest to acquire information about specific requirements and programs.
Topics to consider:
How to Prepare for Graduate School
The biology curriculum at Loyola provides an excellent foundation for most graduate programs. Exact requirements vary from program to program, but if an otherwise good applicant happens to lack one or two specific courses, these can usually be taken during the graduate program.
When selecting undergraduate courses, consider taking courses beyond the specific program requirements. Statistics is essential for most fields of biological research, and is recommended for all students planning to attend graduate school. A course in computer programming will also be useful in some areas. For graduate programs in behavior, neurobiology and endocrinology, certain courses in psychology will be useful preparation. Likewise, additional courses in chemistry, physics or math may be important for those applying to graduate programs in biochemistry, biophysics or quantitative biology. Generally, taking more math and science improves ones chances for admission for obvious reasons. It is therefore imperative that you examine the requirements for each program that you have an interest in as early as possible so that you can complete these courses before graduation.
Undergraduate research is an important component for those interested in graduate school. Generally at Loyola, students consider participating in research during the junior or senior year under the supervision of a particular faculty member, either on campus or elsewhere (see course descriptions for available research courses in Biology at Loyola). Research is demanding in terms of time, and also demands a high degree of motivation as well as the ability to work carefully and with minimal supervision. Because each faculty member can supervise only a limited number of students, and because research projects require advanced planning, it is suggested that an interested student contact a prospective faculty supervisor well before the beginning of the semester in which research is planned. Research is useful preparation for graduate school because it is an important component in Master's and particularly Ph.D. programs. Thus, by doing research before graduating, you can: 1) decide whether you like it enough to want to go to graduate school and do more of it and 2) if you decide it is to your liking, your work here will aid you in carrying out a graduate research project. It will also provide an opportunity for a faculty member to get to know you better and provide a more detailed and convincing letter of recommendation should you request one.
Several other programs or courses are of potential interest to those who are bound for graduate school. Independent Study courses enable a student with a deep and genuine interest to explore a particular topic in detail, and could lead to undergraduate research or even to a research project in graduate school. Finally, summer programs offer a variety of experiences useful to those considering graduate school. These include formal courses, internships and opportunities to assist in established research programs. Formal courses often cost money, although financial aid may be available. Internships and assistantships may be nonpaying, or they may pay stipends of up to several thousand dollars for the summer. Summer programs, even those involving course work for credit, tend to be less structured than many of our courses at Loyola, and often involve independent projects, and permit students and faculty to get to know one another well. This is a particularly good opportunity for those interested in field biology to pick up courses in ecology and systematics.
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How to Select Graduate Programs
In the United States alone, there are several hundred schools with graduate programs in biology. Seek the advice of faculty members familiar with your proposed area of concentration in graduate school early in the process. And aim to apply to no more than 6-8 schools.
When applying to graduate schools, you are essentially applying to a department and not to a school. Admission to the university is largely a formality, occurring automatically if a department accepts you. Thumbnail sketches of many biology departments can be found in Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs in Biological Sciences, copies of which may be found in the Career Center in the DiChiara College Center (W002) or LC-ND Library at the Reference Desk. They are organized by discipline, with a section of general biology departments followed by departments in various specialties (e.g. physiology, biochemistry).
Some things that you may wish to consider when selecting a school:
- Have your interests narrowed to a particular discipline of biology? If not, you should probably restrict your attention to the broader departments (e.g. biology, zoology), which will give you more flexibility later in selecting a research topic and advisor. Such departments are often found at smaller schools. If your interests have narrowed (e.g. microbiology, neurophysiology, ecology), look at the departments in this specialty, but keep in mind that some broader departments may also have strong programs in these areas.
- How strong is your background? Be realistic in your expectations. If your grades, research experience and letters of reference are excellent, shoot for the very best departments. A degree from such a school will help you later on. If your background is less strong, send at least some applications to less prestigious departments. Many excellent faculty members can be found at such schools, and these schools are easier to get into and to obtain financial aid from than the top schools. If you do well in a Master's program at a second-tier school it is often possible subsequently to get into a top Ph.D. program if you decide to continue in school. It is not possible to give a single listing of the best graduate departments in biology, 1) because this sort of ranking is subjective, and 2) because each school and department has its particular strengths. We suggest that you talk to as many professionals in the discipline as possible and use this information to form your own opinions.
- Do you have any geographical preferences? Consider both the region of the country and whether you prefer an urban or non-urban campus. Be open-minded! Graduate school is an excellent opportunity to spend some time in a different part of the country, even if you do not plan to make that area your permanent home.
After using the above criteria to narrow the field, look at the course offerings and faculty in more detail:
- Are there sufficient courses available in areas that interest you?
- Are the faculty active in research, as indicated by recent publications and student theses completed? The Corporate Index of the Science Citation Index is useful in evaluating productivity of a department because it lists all publications attributed to each department in each year. See the science librarian for details.
- Do one or more faculty members have research programs that are interesting to you? It may be best to choose a department where there are several faculty members with interesting programs. Then, if one adviser doesn't work out for some reason, you have other options and would not have to leave the department.
Look also at the facilities available at the school compared to those of other schools, including the size of the library, presence of specialized research equipment, field stations, greenhouses, etc., and the existence of cooperative arrangements with other institutions.
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How to Apply to Graduate School
Once you have decided which schools interest you, send postcards or letters to departments of interest requesting applications (and examine their current course catalogs and descriptions of faculty research areas). You should begin soliciting this information during your junior year.
Note the application deadlines and submit the applications accordingly. Be aware that some schools have earlier deadlines if you wish to be considered for financial aid, typically in January.
You will need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Nearly all programs require that you take GRE "General Test" and many also require that you take the subject exam in either biology or biochemistry, cell and molecular biology. Take the test at least 4-6 weeks prior to the deadline for your graduate applications.
When you sign up to take the exams, arrange to have GRE scores reported to the school if they are required. Plan to take the GRE exams (general and advanced tests) by October (preferably) and no later than December of your senior year.
Line up several individuals to write letters of recommendation at least several weeks before the letters are due. Graduate programs are generally not interested in letters from non-scientists as they are trying to evaluate your scientific merit, your aptitude and your interest. Your letters should come from biology, chemistry and mathematics faculty or from psychology professors who work in biological psychology.
If there are one or two faculty members at the school you're applying to whose research particularly interests you, consider sending personal letters to those individuals. Such a contact can be especially important at the more competitive schools. Indicate your interest in this person's program, and provide some information about your own academic background, past research and future goals.
Also consider visiting departments and individuals that particularly interest you, especially if they are nearby. Such a visit allows you to assess the program, facilities and the individuals with whom you may be working. Make sure to spend some time talking to the current graduate students. Often they can provide you with much useful information about courses, requirements, research, personalities and graduate student life. In some cases the schools will subsidize your visit.
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Financial Aid for Graduate Studies
Most graduate students in biology receive financial aid. Several sources are available, including teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistantships (RAs) and fellowships. TAs and RAs are awarded by the school or department. They typically involve 10-20h per week of work, either teaching laboratory sections of undergraduate courses, or assisting faculty members in their research. In some cases, research assistantships allow you to be paid for doing your own research, if this is part of a larger project being directed by a faculty member. Fellowships are awarded by either the school or agencies of the federal government. Fellowships are outright grants, and require only that you work toward your degree.
Stipends range from about $5,000 to more than $14,000, and usually include a tuition waver. In evaluating different awards, find out whether they are 9- or 12-month appointments. Twelve months awards often pay more, but may require work during the summer, which can conflict with your own research project. Keep in mind that the cost of living varies greatly; therefore $5,000 at one school may equal $7,000 at another.
Some undergraduates avoid graduate school because they feel they need to earn some money to pay off loans incurred for their undergraduate schooling. However, many contracts do not require payment as long as you remain a full time student. Thus, enrolling in graduate school can simply defer repayment of the loan. This may actually work to your advantage 1) if your earning power after graduate school is greater than your earning power after your undergraduate years, and 2) if inflation reduces the value of the dollars with which you repay your loan.
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A variety of jobs is available to those with graduate degrees in biological sciences. Major employers are academic institutions, governments, and private and public corporations. Many regions of the country currently have shortages of qualified high school biology teachers. Employment prospects vary among disciplines, being generally better in areas with economic applications.
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